Photography, for many reasons, has always been ever so slightly more available to women. It was such a new medium, without the systems of training being set up for centuries like they were in painting or sculpture. While it meant that photography had to fight for its place in the art world, it also meant women had access. They didn’t have an easy path, but they did get to try it. Anna Atkins, Julia Margaret Cameron and Dorothea Lange are just a few woman in the world of photography.
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) was a documentary photographer. She began her career as a portrait photographer in San Francisco after studying at Columbia University in Photography. When the Great Depression hit, she began taking photographs of the homeless in the area. This led to her working with the Farm Securities Administration. The point of this branch of documentary photographers was to capture what was happening in the country to be printed in newspapers and used to convince Congress to pay for programs to help end the Depression. They focused on the Great Plains and the Dust Storms that were so common there. Lange documented much of the camps of people who had moved from these states to California in hopes of a better life. Even though these people drove hundreds of miles, they often found themselves unable to find permanent work and lived in temporary shelters.
This is what led to the single most iconic image of the Great Depression, Migrant Mother. In March of 1936, Lange was documenting field laborers. She arrived in Nipomo, California and encountered Florence Owens Thompson. Lange recollected the following encounter,
I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).
As it is the image that we always find it printed in textbooks and any mention of the Great Depression, it was a wild success. People call it the Modern Mary and Jesus imagery, that shows the importance of maternal love in such a difficult world. What those textbooks don’t say is that the whole series of Migrant Mother, shows a much different story.
Thompson was Cherokee, born on a reservation in 1903. She was a widow and had six children. These were all parts of a much deeper story that were not shared. In this image, she is very digestible as a white mother struggling to survive with her young child. What is not told is the racism, sexism and poverty that this woman encountered everyday. While the Depression was a horrible time in her life, her true identity was not something the Americans of 1936 were willing to hear.
So Dorothea Lange made the story something that could make a difference in the moment, but not contribute to real changes for the Thompson. Lange then went on during World War II to capture the true reality of internment camps for Japanese Americans. She wasn’t perfect, but she used her privilege as a middle class white woman to make the lives of those less fortunate slightly more bearable. She is my hero. Check back, I’ll probably write a love letter.